The festival is explained in more detail after the story to avoid reaping spoilers.
This one-shot is separate to "Mirror With Its Own Reflection" on ff dot net (sorry, my muse is away).
Inspired by The Cure's "Lullaby" and Dubstar's "Stars", songs I highly recommend.
A Branch Reaches Up
We'll take our hearts outside,
leave our lives behind
and watch the stars go out.
From "Stars" by Dubstar
Mei and Kaoru were silent on the way to Sengoku station, the only sounds being the clacking of wooden footwear and the late-night buzz of Tokyo city. Where the streets were normally dull and uniform, betraying nothing of the neighbours concealed in their buildings, coloured strips of paper now hung from every entranceway, tied above the gates with poles of bamboo. Cascading down the lengths of these strips were the handwritten wishes of family and friends, unreadable as they fluttered in a mild summer breeze. As the couple approached the busier, more congested streets with their temporary food carts and garish trinket stalls, the breeze slowly dropped and the sticky scent of sizzling meat dispelled its cooling efforts. Adding to the warmth were the high-pitched cries of children and the drone of idle conversation, yet the voices of Mei and Kaoru continued to be unheard as they passed through the vociferous merriment towards the heaving subway.
Following Kaoru, Mei fixed her eyes on the ground, watching the toes of her feet come and go beneath the hem of her yukata. On the slim, tanned figure of Mei, the yukata looked great and its refreshing shade of magenta, adorned with pale, hand-sewn flowers removed from another fabric, amplified her presence amongst the moving crowd. When Kaoru arrived to collect her, standing beneath the streetlights in a dark-patterned yukata, Mei had fully expected a long and elaborate compliment of the kind that she had often heard from Suoh Tamaki. But Kaoru was different. With those distant, golden eyes, he merely absorbed his partner's appearance, resting a clinical gaze on the cut and fold of her clothing before sweeping upwards to the curls pouring loose down her neck. At the white lily securing the height of these curls, Kaoru had smiled, even going so far as to stroke its cotton petals. Yet for the painted face with its hopeful expression, there had been no smile or flowery comment, no kiss or intimate touch of the hand, just the piercing inspection of a pedigree stylist, and the sense that Mei had made the wrong choice.
As they reached the steps to the subway, jostled now by commuters dressed for the evening, the thought of spending the seventh night of the seventh month with such an insensitive host was almost too much to bear. They had never been alone like this, always entrenched in the company of others. While Kaoru was an accomplished host in his own right, concussing the average client with acts of "brotherly love", there had been nothing in his impish demeanour which had appealed to Mei in the least. It was Tamaki that Mei preferred, the blond-haired President of the Host Club whose flawless, blue-eyed exterior secretly hid a Japanese fortune. The fact that someone like Haruhi could have made his acquaintance so soon had tied a jealous knot in Mei's heart; not only did Haruhi attend the same school as the guy but the two of them were already friends, so what could Mei do to even compete, possessing no viable ties with the students of Ouran? In the end, wishing them the best was the most that she could do, and so, Mei was left to watch from afar, quietly bitter as romance between the unlikeliest pair reared and gradually flourished.
'All's fair in love and war,' Kaoru had said to her on the day the announcement was made. To celebrate their official status as boyfriend and girlfriend, Tamaki had invited the Host Club to Kyoto, where he felt that a commoner would be truly happy. Though this had earned him a thump to the head from Haruhi herself, everyone had been content to play along and accept an invitation to enjoy a traditional inn. They were renting private quarters in Kyoto's finest establishment, eating mounds of sasami on ice with seasonal dishes unique to the city whilst trying to master commoner board games. Beyond the tatami-covered room with its mahogany tables was the darkening sky with its chain of constellations. Prior to dessert, Mei had stumbled outside to catch some fresh air, concealing her depression with claims of a stomach ache, and though there was no conceivable reason why Kaoru should have been there, the younger twin was, completely unaffected by Mei's surprised exclamation. A trickling stream and the thumps of bamboo had filled his brooding silence and he blinked at her startled pose as if it was normal. As the silence stretch on, he turned once more to the stars above, the gold in his eyes unusually bright.
Settling beside him on the boardwalk outlining the garden, Mei remembered how they had stared at the pallid lumps of stone rising out from the darkness, boulders scoured smooth by generations of rain and instilled with the worries of previous visitors. Like the stems of bamboo overflowing with water, she eventually spilled the feelings within, confessing the love still preserved in her heart for the guy who would not reciprocate hers. Without a word, Kaoru listened, tilting his chin to acknowledge her inner torment, yet never quite sharing the source of his own. To salve the lonely sting of Mei's "irreparable" wounds, or with the simple intention to stop Mei from crying, Kaoru had offered to attend the daimyo gardens which she would have enjoyed with Suoh Tamaki. On the seventh night of the seventh month, he was to meet her beneath the streetlights not far from the apartment where Mei now lived with her dad, trying to patch things up and improve their relationship. Living with Haruhi had become too painful and Kaoru had understood that, but why was the warmth he had given Mei on that heartbreaking night absent now from the gestures he was giving?
She raised her eyes from the pavement to the proffered hand willing to guide her into the subway. As if aware of his partner's thoughts, the confidence was back in Kaoru's smile as he stood on the lower steps, hand stretched out. Mei gathered the yukata hem with the hand that grasped her bag and finally gave the other free hand to Kaoru. They reached the bottom without any mishaps, feeding their prepaid tickets through the automated barriers and taking their place with other commuters behind the painted lines on the platform. A few minutes later, the train arrived, stopping perfectly between the lines where the carriage doors had to be. Commuters spilled out and commuters piled in. The carriage was overcrowded, but there was just enough room to squeeze the two of them in, much to Mei and Kaoru's mutual embarrassment.
As their bodies swayed in time with the moving carriage, Mei tried to think of the evening ahead and what she would have wanted to do had she been with Suoh Tamaki. On the seventh night of the seventh month was the Festival of Stars, the only night in the year when Orihime was said to reunite with her lover Hikoboshi. The streets would be decked with streamers and handmade symbols of health, luck, and prosperity. To rival the celebrations of Sendai and Hiratsuka, Sengoku had decided to open its daimyo gardens and permit its citizens to wander the ancient and picturesque grounds. For a small fee, they could enter and view the gardens bred for the purpose of poetry and stroll the lantern-lit paths curving the lake and its verdant surroundings. Clutching her bag, Mei recited the poem which she had written on a streamer she would tie to the bamboo there, and wondered if Kaoru would do something similar. Tonight, he did not have a bag and his hands had been empty under the streetlights, yet surely the twin had brought his own prayers and poems?
The train slowed; packed commuters swaying with its halting motion. The doors slid open and commuters rushed forth, eager to get home or join the celebrations. Anxious not to trip, Mei shuffled as quickly as the wooden shoes would allow through the mass of strolling commuters heading for the exit. And she was almost there, ready to climb the steps that would bring her onto the main street, when someone caught the rear of her foot, unbalancing the rhythm of her tentative pace. Instead of falling, the firm grip of Kaoru held her upright and steady and refused to let go until they were clear of the subway. Mei glared at him then, severely annoyed.
'Did you stand on my foot?' she demanded.
Kaoru smiled at the anger in her face. 'No,' he said, and kept hold of her hand.
They walked on in silence, members of the crowd that would take them to the gardens. Missing from the infinite black of the copper-stained sky were the fireworks of Sendai and the monstrous streams of multicoloured plastic. Although the council had been generous to the city of Tokyo, not every ward had received their fair share of the council's annual funding, leaving parts of the city underwhelmed by decorations; only the vendors of seasonal charms served as a form of local embellishment, and for some of the festival seekers entering the gardens, seasonal charms were simply not enough.
There should have been stars, thought Mei, staring up at the sky. But at least it isn't raining…
'Are you coming?' Kaoru called from the garden entrance. True to his word, he had paid for the tickets and was now in the process of tearing one– 'Joking!' laughed Kaoru, as Mei prepared to snatch the endangered ticket away from his grasp. 'Shall we?'
Again, they held hands, the warmth in Kaoru's palm so alike to the warmth of Tamaki's… or what Mei imagined would have been the case had Tamaki come to love her. She blinked rapidly at the tears that were suddenly in her eyes. She made the best of her walk with Kaoru, trailing the twilight lanes that meandered pleasantly through the gardens, leading them under the trees, where boughs and leaves hung vivid and stark in the limited glow of the lanterns. They paused in a glade of bamboo, the flexible stems bending into archways that would soon be released from their synthesised growth. So many streamers dangled along the bamboo glade, carrying the hopes and wishes for the future with the ease of an untroubled conscience. To the rest were added the messages of Mei and Kaoru, who tied their streamers on separate plants, neither sneaking a glance at each other's streamers, though it was natural to be curious.
'I know what you're doing,' said Kaoru, as he finished tying his streamer to a plant beyond her reach.
Mei feigned innocence; she had tried to read his streamer, which Kaoru had stored in the pocket of his yukata. 'What? I wasn't reading it.'
In the glade, the lanterns flickered and people buried their forearms in the sleeves of their yukatas.
'Mei,' said the twin, 'I know that you love him.'
The earth smelt strong around them; water dropped through the glade of bamboo onto the people in the gardens. 'Oh no,' one remarked, 'the princess will never meet her lover now…' As the rain continued to fall, pouring relentlessly down, so did the tears which had finally escaped from Mei's blinking eyes. Uncomfortable with this public emotion, people moved away from the girl who was crying in the glade, careful not to watch, but the boy with the golden stare looked on, rain dripping past his stoic jaw.
He knew it would come to this.
With the same arms which had steadied Mei in the subway, he steadied her now, kissing her on the forehead and drawing her close. 'I hope you learnt something today,' Kaoru murmured, stroking Mei's hair.
But Mei felt so broken, too broken to answer him back. She would have kicked, she would have fought, but Fate had a way of stealing her strength. 'Learnt – learnt what?' she sobbed.
'That no one can replace the person you love. That the person you love has to be someone else.' Kaoru looked at her then, properly looked at her. 'I love someone too,' he said, barely audible above the pattering of the rain. 'But this is all I can do for her until she loves me back.'
Then Mei was alone with the bamboo and the rain. In her hand was the streamer that Kaoru had tied to a stem of bamboo. Prayers and poems offered on the Festival of Stars should not be removed until the stars had disappeared. Even so, Kaoru had sacrificed his hopes and wishes for the future, as if they no longer mattered. Crying afresh, Mei held the streamer soaked in her hand, remembering who had spent the evening at her side.
In the clouds,
petals fly with the breeze;
a branch reaches up.
Tanabata: Star Festival on the seventh night of the seventh month; celebrates the meeting of two lovers who reunite once a year on this date; Orihime and Hikoboshi fell in love, neglecting their duties of weaving beautiful cloth and herding cattle, but were separated by Orihime's father and later allowed to meet each other again only on the seventh night of the seventh month; it is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the lovers cannot meet and must wait until next year; fireworks are now part of the festival in Sendai, where the first Tanabata festival was held after WWII (daimyo gardens based on Bunkyou City's Rikugi-en Garden, which is a national park depicting a traditional Japanese garden that includes a small pond, a hill, and some trees).
NB: I wrote the haiku.